ANAHEIM — Talk about the rock of ages.
B.B. King, Bobby Bland and Albert King, aggregate age 194, total professional experience something on the order of 115 years, combined for more than 3 1/2 hours of mostly satisfying blues and R&B Thursday night at the sold-out Celebrity Theatre (the same bill is at the Universal Amphitheatre on Sunday).
Appropriately, the evening's highlight--and an early contender for the year's highlight--was B.B. King singing a song about constancy, endurance and keeping the faith in a humane, giving way.
"When it all comes down, look for me, and I'll still be around," King sang, with the warmth, friendly conviction and sheer, massive presence of some spiritual Gibraltar for the emotionally shipwrecked. The song, an extended piece placed early in his 90-minute set, was such an ebullient, thoroughly glorious piece of music-making that you wanted to start a petition drive on the spot demanding that Congress set aside a mountain so that King's august visage could be carved into it, along with the image of his trusty guitar, Lucille.
What King teased and stroked out of that famous black Gibson during "I'll Still Be Around" was classic: thick sustained notes, almost casual quick flutters, pauses to build anticipation, all capped by some conversational note bending in which the guitar seemed to call out "Yes, indeed; Uh-HUH!" to underscore the lyric's affirmation. Then King finished off his solo with a dynamic, rising run that had the bite and brawn of good rock 'n' roll.
King let his fine seven-man band take hold of the song from there, but he added another impressive dimension even after he had stopped singing and playing. King made a wonderful conductor, full of forceful, joyful gestures and body English and spontaneous facial expressions that registered his delight and engagement with the music unfolding around him.
After that, King settled into an amiable, smooth groove rather than trying to counterbalance the opening movement's joy with explorations of dire blues depths. In fact, he made light of the deep, troubled blues with musical jokes. One song found King breaking into mock blubbering as he theatrically oversold a bill of woes as a funereal organ played. There were a few moments of genuine sad emotion during "The Thrill Is Gone," but not enough to stem King's seldom-ebbing flow of humor. Lost in that wave of good feeling was any chance for a dramatically constructed set.
King ended with an upbeat, secularized spiritual, leading the audience in singing, "Let's all get together, bring peace to the world." He may have felt that the Persian Gulf War presented enough real-life trouble and drama to last folks for a while, choosing instead to make his blues an antidote to those blues. Whatever he chooses to play, King clearly is still at the peak of his powers. This is one 65-year-old who shouldn't even begin to contemplate retirement.
King's former protege, Bobby Bland (if protege is an apt term to use for a 61-year-old man), brought humor into his show by singing conversationally to couples in the first row surrounding the circular stage.
But Bland's forte is soulful yearning for love lost. He had to overcome a cloudy humidity in his voice (he seemed to be having a sinus problem), plus another obstacle he put up himself: over-reliance at certain times on the pig-snort vocal effect that has been his longtime gimmick.
But Bland's gentle aching came through clearly on his best ballads--a version of Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine," and a recent song, "You've Got to Hurt Before You Heal," that proves Bland hasn't lost his edge with age. Another fine '80s-vintage ballad, "Members Only," started as if it were going to be the saddest, most soulful tune of all, but Bland, apparently pressed for time, cut it off and jumped into a brisk, up-tempo song to close his 70-minute set. Bland's exceptional seven-man band cushioned the yearning tunes and blasted some unimpeachable funk, including an opening instrumental workout on Grover Washington Jr.'s "Mr. Magic" that roused the crowd with hot soloing from saxophonist Sidney Ford, bassist Reggie Richards and guitarist Mark Lee.
Albert King's inconsistent hourlong opening set included one stunning number that made it worthwhile: the eerily restrained "As the Years Go Passing By." King, who is almost 68, built the song's guitar dynamics gradually while keeping his husky vocals quiet and controlled as he warned a woman who abandoned him that the ghost of their shattered relationship would haunt her the rest of her life. When King finally erupted with his guitar, the raw, discordant solo was the equivalent of someone tearing up a room in a blind rage.